3G arrives in China–now where’s my iPhone?

The wait is over. Nary 24 hours ago, China’s Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT, as in “got their MIITs in everything”, for short) issued China’s first 3G licenses.

China’s largest provider, China Mobile, received its license for the made-in-China TD-SCDMA network, while China Unicom got it for the Japanese-built W-CDMA. China Telecom, like the little-noticed bronze medalist, will be pinning its 3G license to the American-made CDMA2000 standard.

Third generation, three carriers and three standards… it’s a telecom equivalent of the holy trinity.The 3G licensing wasn’t expected to occur until later this year, but with the promise of stimulating a rather dour economy by encouraging consumer purchasing and tech infrastructure upgrading, a better-sooner-than-later attitude was adopted.

The issuance of licenses also falls in line with the long on-going restructuring of China’s state-controlled telecom industry–an effort to level the playing field by knocking China Mobile (the world’s largest mobile operator) back a bit, and giving its competitors a chance to take a taste of its 2/3rds market share (or about 400 million users).

Though I’ll admit that when I look at China’s mobile sector, my eyes cross and I have flashbacks of spending hours untangling Christmas lights as a child, here are my predictions:

1. China Mobile will market the heck out of the fact that it is using “China’s VERY OWN” TD-SCDMA technology. Though a money pit, nationalism is a powerful thing. Beijing has pledged to sink money into support the continued development of the Chinese standard. And with a bunch of low-cost Chinese made handsets on the market, I’m certain incentives to incorporate the otherwise useless technology can be found.

2. China Unicom is the one to watch. Having dumped its CDMA2000 standard on China Telecom and gained the license to operate the globally embraced 3G W-CDMA network, it’s bound to take the lion’s share of what China Mobile is sure to shed. That the company is using the tried, trusted and true W-CDMA tech will likely allow it to be first out of the gate with a practical launch of 3G service across the country. By the end of this year, if all goes well. The network will also be attractive to the core market of tech/business people who will want phones compatible with a network that has wide coverage in Japan, Hong Kong and Europe.

3. China Telecom is newest to the game and will surely have some mountains to overcome. Though it’s purchased China Unicom’s partially used CDMA network, and as such is already operating a 3G network in Macau, the company is bound to experience hiccups as it figures out the industry sans wires. Still, it has deep pockets and nowhere to go but up.

Ultimately, the three-company competition is bound to create some lucrative options for the average consumer. However, that we’re going to have to deal with three standards floating around is likely to bind people to a particular carrier, a fact that is good for the companies, but not so much for us end-users.

The biggest question, however, still remains. When are we getting our legitimate iPhones? Was the holdup the lack of 3G networks, the fact that mobile devices aren’t allowed to have Wi-Fi connections in China? Seriously, what’s the holdup?

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